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Eight Bites Do Not Satisfy Me

March 9, 2018

Thanks to Sam Risak, a 2018 Harrison Middleton University Fellow in Ideas recipient, for today's post.

An unnamed narrator sheds weight but not her past in Carmen Maria Machado’s “Eight Bites.” After a gastric bypass surgery, old flesh is personified into a “body with nothing it needs: no stomach or bones or mouth” that lingers in the protagonist’s house (165). Machado’s surrealist blurring of realities rejects the possibility for any universal ideals, including a woman’s thin frame as the standard beauty model.

In the story, the protagonist’s mother only consumed eight bites of any meal, regardless of her hunger or the food’s content. The extremity of the eating practice stresses that the characters’ conflicts with their size was one concerning their appearance and not their well-being, significant when popular culture disguises many of its beauty standards as health claims. With eight bites, the mother could maintain her slender frame and never risk social deviance, still able to “compliment the hostess” (152). The difference in body size between the narrator and her mother constructed a wall of dissonance and uncertainty between the two. Why didn’t the narrator inherit her mother’s restraint? Why could she not subsist off minuscule portions? Eight bites became a conquest, a mallet to shatter the wall isolating her from her mother.

The narrator blames the birth of her now-grown daughter, Cal, as the instigator to her weight gain. Unlike the protagonist’s nieces who support their mothers, Cal—a difficult, incomprehensible feminist—is the antagonist to mainstream ideologies and is hurt by her mother’s surgery. She shares her mother’s shape, and when her mother renounces her own body, she renounces her daughter’s. The narrator cannot see how she is passing down to Cal the same maternal dissidence she experienced and dismisses Cal’s anger as one more thing she cannot understand about her daughter. Of course, Cal’s body is imperfect, the narrator thinks to herself, but can’t she see how her youth grants her ample time to change? The protagonist, like many subjected to the repetitive frames dominating popular media, regards the thin body not only as preferable, but as the only legitimate body to have.

When the protagonist’s sisters decide on surgery, she joins them, not because she needs a superior body, but because she fears risking marginalization otherwise. When the initial sister underwent the surgery, rather than responding with envy, the protagonist feared her sister may be dying. But when sister two and three each followed and the bypass was explained, the narrator could not overcome her feelings of being left behind. To mark the death of her old shape, the narrator orders a last meal at Salt. While the location of her favorite restaurant remains the same, the restaurant itself is always changing, always improving, in parallel with society’s continuously elevated standards. At the newest spot, the narrator eats a platter of oysters, and one of them sticks to the shell. The narrator realizes the mollusks are alive: “they have no brains or insides…but they are alive nonetheless” (156). She believes if there were justice, she would be choked by the oyster, a symbol of the discarded parts of her body that too cling to their shell. Plate in front of her, the narrator “almost gagged, but then [she] swallowed” (156).

Post-surgery, all appears to go well; the neighbors notice her weight loss—an implied compliment—and when she makes a chicken dinner, she stops at bite eight. She has joined her mother and sisters, tossing aside the body that made her an outcast before. But she is not quite free. That body haunts her, appearing initially as an unseen presence, and then as a tangible form one night at the end of her stairs. At first, the narrator believes the shape, almost prepubescent, to be her daughter. Soon, however, she recognizes her [the shape] to be the body she had tried to abandon—her post-Cal body. She tells her body she is unwanted, violently kicking her, yet wishing she, like the oyster, “would fight back” (165). After that, the body stays out of the narrator’s sight, leaving behind trails of laundry and offerings of hard candy which let the protagonist know she “is around, even when she is not around” (167). No one else ever witnesses her, but the protagonist never wonders whether she is literal or imagined, ghost or dream. Because she does not spend time worrying about or even questioning the physicality of the form, the significance of the debate itself is subverted. In any encounter, the details we notice, the meanings we attribute to interactions, everything is shaped by the lens constructed by our backgrounds. Outsiders do not perceive the body because they have not lived the life required to see her.

In popular media, women’s sizes are hierarchized, bigger bodies assuming the pyramid’s bottom row, and the slim and often underweight forming the tiny triangle on top. Society justifies this hierarchy by framing the thin body as the image of health, a more objective sounding ideal than one based in beauty. In the story “Eight Bites,” it is neither the narrator’s physical discomfort nor her high regard of a thin body that motivates her to undergo the gastric bypass surgery, but her fear for marginalization had she not. Only in death, when her old body comforts her, reaching out to “touch her cheek like [she] once did Cal’s” (167), does the narrator recognize how she cut herself down for a society she was never going to fit. The problem had never been her body, but the culture that trained her to believe it was.

Machado’s ambiguity between reality and hallucination illustrates the fallacy in universal standards. The narrator may share her sisters’ blood and size, but her different experiences alter how she lives inside her body. Her post-Cal shape was a culmination of all her identities and adventures, including childbirth, and to dismiss the body is to dismiss the life that led to it. In her smaller frame, the narrator may have been able to stop at bite eight, but she was never full.

Machado, Carmen Maria. “Eight Bites.” Her Body and Other Parties. Graywolf Press, 2017.

 

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Love Letters

February 16, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

“Sanskrit has 96 words for love; ancient Persian has 80, Greek three, and English only one.” - Robert Johnson, The Fisher King and the Handless Maiden

I think that it would be ideal to have somewhere between 96 and 3 words for love. Certainly, one does not seem enough. It is much like the word nature, which contains so much. When discussing literature, we spend so much time just trying to figure out what type of love we are talking about...what type of love the characters demonstrate. Moreover, we use the same word to say that we love something as silly as ice cream, and something as serious as a lost loved one. The following love letters fit the week's theme, which celebrates St. Valentine. They are an exchange between Nathaniel Hawthorne and his future wife Sophia Peabody. They married in 1842 and had three children and a long marriage. Though both were known to be quiet and reclusive, these letters prove of an intense and passionate relationship.

Nathaniel Hawthorne referred to Sophia as his “Dove” and said that she was his sole companion. He continues, “I need no other - there is no vacancy in my mind, any more than in my heart... Thank God that I suffice for her boundless heart!” After their first child was born, Nathaniel Hawthorne also felt a different kind of love and he voices this profound responsibility of fatherhood. He writes, “I have business on earth now, and must look about me for the means of doing it.”

We wish you health, happiness and love. Contemplate and celebrate the many meanings of love this week!

Nathaniel Hawthorne to Sophia Peabody, December 5, 1839

Dearest, – I wish I had the gift of making rhymes, for methinks there is poetry in my head and hear since I have been in love with you. You are a Poem. Of what sort, then? Epic? Mercy on me, no! A sonnet? No; for that is too labored and artificial. You are a sort of sweet, simple, gay pathetic ballad, which Nature is singing, sometimes with tears, sometimes with smiles, and sometimes with intermingled smiles and tears.

 

Sophia Peabody to Nathaniel Hawthorne, December 31, 1839

Best Beloved, – I send you some allumettes wherewith to kindle the taper. There are very few but my second finger could no longer perform extra duty. These will serve till the wounded one be healed, however. How beautiful it is to provide even the slightest convenience for you, dearest! I cannot tell you how much I love you, in this back-handed style. My love is not in this attitude, - it rather bends forwards to meet you.

What a year this has been to us! My definition of Beauty is, that it is love, and therefore includes both truth and good. But those only who love as we do can feel the significance and force of this.

My ideas will not flow in these crooked strokes. God be with you. I am very well, and have walked far in Danvers this cold morning. I am full of the glory of the day. God bless you this night of the old year. It has proved the year of our nativity. Has not the old earth passed away from us? - are not all things new?

Your Sophie

- These letters can be found in: Forever Yours: Letters of Love. St. Martin's Press, 1991.

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Autumn Color

November 3, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

In celebration of fall color, today's blog offers excerpts from both Rachel Carson and Aldo Leopold. Both passages celebrate life, love and the mystery of nature. They also ask deep questions about the human place within nature. Changing colors and seasons present the perfect time for reflection. Enjoy – and happy fall!

 Photo credit: Alissa Simon

Photo credit: Alissa Simon

From Under the Sea-Wind by Rachel Carson, chapter 11 “Indian Summer of the Sea”

“The spirit of the autumn sea was heard in the voices of the kittiwakes, or frost gulls, who began to arrive in flocks by mid-October. They whirled in thousands over the water, dropping down on arched wings to seize small fish that darted through translucent green. The kittiwakes had come southward from nesting grounds on the cliffs of the Artic coast and the Greenland ice packs, and with them the first chill breath of winter moved over the graying sea.

“There were other signs that autumn had come to the sea. Every day the flights of ocean birds, that in September had poured in thin aerial streams over the coastal waters from Greenland, Labrador, Keewatin, and Baffin Land, swelled in volume as the birds hastened to return to the sea. There were gannets and fulmars, jaegers and skuas, dovekies and phalaropes. Their flocks spread out over all the waters above the continental shelf, where the shoals of surface fishes moved and the plankton herds browsed in the sea. ….

“Few of these birds would see land again until spring. Now they belonged once more to the winter sea, sharing its daylight and darkness, its storms and calms, its sleet and snow and sun and fog. ….

“Slowly the summer warmth was drained from the water. The young crabs, mussels, barnacles, worms, starfish, and crustaceans of scores of species had disappeared from the plankton, for in the ocean spring and summer are the seasons of birth and youth. Only to some of the simplest creatures did the Indian summer of the sea bring a brief and flaring renewal of life, so that they multiplied a millionfold. Among these were the one-celled animals, or protozoa, small as pinpricks, which are among the chief light producers of the sea. Ceratium, the horned one – a blog of protoplasm with three grotesque prongs – sprinkled the night seas of October with silver points of light and so filled the surface waters that over vast areas the sea lay thickened and moved sluggishly under the wind. The little globes of Noctiluca – just visible to the human eye – were each aglitter with submicroboscopic grains of light within themselves. During this autumnal period of their great abundance, every fish that moved where the swarms of protozoa were most dense was bathed in light; the waves that broke on reef or shoal spilled liquid fire; and every dip of a fisherman's oar was a flash of a torch in the darkness.”

 

From “November”, A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold

“November is, for many reasons, the month for the axe. It is warm enough to grind an axe without freezing, but cold enough to fell a tree in comfort. The leaves are off the hardwoods, so that one can see just how the branches intertwine, and what growth occurred last summer. Without this clear view of treetops, one cannot be sure which tree, if any, needs felling for the good of the land.

“I have read many definitions of what is a conservationist, and written not a few myself, but I suspect that the best one is written not with a pen, but with an axe. It is a matter of what a man thinks about while chopping, or while deciding what to chop. A conservationist is one who is humbly aware that with each stroke he is writing his signature on the face of his land. Signatures of course differ, whether written with axe or pen, and this is as it should be.

“I find it disconcerting to analyze, ex post facto, the reasons behind my own axe-in-hand decisions. I find, first of all, that not all trees are created free and equal. Where a white pine and a red birch are crowding each other, I have an a priori bias; I always cut the birch to favor the pine. Why?

“Well, first of all, I planted the pine with my shovel, whereas the birch crawled in under the fence and planted itself. My bias is thus to some extent paternal, but this cannot be the whole story, for if the pine were a natural seedling like the birch, I would value it even more. So I must dig deeper for the logic, if any, behind my bias.

“The birch is an abundant tree in my township and becoming more so, whereas pine is scarce and becoming scarcer; perhaps my bias is for the underdog. But what would I do if my farm were further north, where pine is abundant and red birch is scarce? I confess I don't know. My farm is here.

“The pine will live for a century, the birch for half of that; do I fear that my signature will fade? My neighbors have planted no pines but all have many birches; am I snobbish about having a woodlot distinction? The pine stays green all winter, the birch punches the clock in October; do I favor the tree that, like myself, braves the winter wind? The pine will shelter a grouse but the birch will feed him; do I consider bed more important than board? The pine will ultimately bring ten dollars a thousand, the birch two dollars; have I an eye on the bank? All of these possible reasons for my bias seem to carry some weight, but none of them carries very much.

“So I try again, and here perhaps is something; under this pine will ultimately grow a trailing arbutus, an Indian pipe, a pyrola, or a twin flower, whereas under the birch a bottle gentian is about the best to be hoped for. In this pine a pileated woodpecker will ultimately chisel out a nest; in the birch a hairy will have to suffice. In this pine the wind will sing for me in April, at which time the birch is only rattling naked twigs. These possible reasons for my bias carry weight, but why? Does the pine stimulate my imagination and my hopes more deeply than the birch does? If so, is the difference in the trees, or in me?

“The only conclusion I have ever reached is that I love all trees, but I am in love with pines.

“As I said, November is the month for the axe, and, as in other love affairs, there is skill in the exercise of bias.”

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Picasso's Guernica

September 23, 2016

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

“The world today doesn't make sense, so why should I paint pictures that do?” - Pablo Picasso

Last week, I attended a local seminar dedicated to understanding Picasso's Guernica. There is so much written about Guernica alone, that analysis is overwhelming. But part of the truth behind Guernica is the way that it affects each viewer. Picasso's large mural painted in response to the bombing of the innocent village of Gernika, Spain by Nazi forces and Franco's regime, represents a kind of witness that seems very important for society. And yet, I find myself unable to express how the idea of witness functions in society. The painting represents a truth, but that truth is different for everybody. I believe it addresses a level of anguish that exists within each of us – it recalls our own personal experience with tragedy. Atrocities like these make us question our own strength. Part of that strength, I feel, must come from generations of witness. In other words, these are things that we want to both remember and forget. They evolve into mythic discussions, passed on orally. It is this ripple effect that interests me. The truth of Guernica will not be the same to someone who physically witnessed it as it will to someone who has heard of it. Furthermore, the idea of trying to remember and trying to forget causes an internal conflict. I wonder how this internal conflict acts upon our memories.

Everyone connects with Picasso's Guernica in some way. Whether one feels overwhelmed, or finds it ugly, hateful, beautiful or otherwise, the massive figures in the painting act upon every viewer. I find it both ironic and not that the painting never made its way to the north of Spain. Instead, after a few travels, followed by a long stay at MoMA, the painting now resides in Madrid, the capital of Spain. In one sense, the painting need never return to Gernika, which witnessed atrocity firsthand. Those who rebuilt the town already know the utter depth of the town's pain, anguish and loss and therefore do not need to see the visual reminder. On the other hand, the powerful painting expresses something to them that very possibly only they can understand. Some claim that the painting is entirely Spanish – with the bull and the horse – while others claim that it offers universal truths.

Witness, therefore, is a type of truth-act. One that expresses some knowledge gained, though this knowledge comes at great expense. In the introduction to Ethics: An Essay on Understanding Evil by Alain Badiou, Peter Hallward writes, “[F]or Badiou, an ordinary (replaceable) individual becomes irreplaceable, becomes a (singular) subject, only through this very commitment itself; it is only the commitment to a truth-process that 'induces a subject'.”  In other words, humans become irreplaceable only after “an event”. This event need not be as grand or obscene as something like the destruction in Gernika, but an event that plants a Truth into an individual, thus making them unique. Their uniqueness cannot be reconstructed, but is now singular. Also, two witnesses of the same event may arrive at very different realities, which then creates two separate accounts of witness. Hallward continues, “[T]he whole question is precisely whether such deliberation is variable, in the sense of so many variations on some kind of minimally invariant process, or forever different, in the sense of so many inventions ex nihilo, each one literally peculiar to a given procedure.” Whether or not humans achieve connection is at the heart of Badiou's search in his essay on evil. The importance of this question cannot be overstated. It is the heart of how humans process not only memories of war-acts, but any memory, and whether or not that memory can be translated to another. In this case, I feel that Picasso's Guernica demonstrates a successful act of communication, one that functions on many levels and among many cultures. However, I am not sure if it speaks to something inherent in all humans (variable) or is unique in each response (forever different).

To me, this question strikes at the very heart of what we do, not only at Harrison Middleton University, but in all discussions. How do we make our thoughts known? We use universal reference points – just as Picasso has done with Guernica. We stick directly to one text, trying to understand that single thing from many perspectives. I believe that even our own internal reference points can mean more than one thing at any time. And perhaps this is what grows our imagination. Perhaps this is also the cause of misunderstandings. Each time that I look at Guernica, I see more. Each time I discuss it, I feel more. Essentially, then, an act of witness transfers both emotion and knowledge.

“An idea is a point of departure and no more. As soon as you elaborate it, it becomes transformed by thought.” - Pablo Picasso

 

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